Before and After: Kroehler Avant Chairs

A couple weeks ago I purchased a set of lovely Kroehler Avant his and hers chairs. They’re upholstered chairs, but the really cool part is that they have little touches of wood at the legs, arms and back. While the chairs were in pretty great shape upholstery-wise, 40 plus years of rubbing on those wooden arms had taken their toll.

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Wood worn bare surrounded by a thick layer of hand-gunk (my very scientific name for the film created by years of skin oils and dirt combining) are the marks of a chair well loved. I, however, don’t much care for the lingering reminder of another persons touch and set off to refinish these arms. Refinishing wood surrounded by upholstery can be a little tricky. It takes a lot of masking and a steady hand to make sure all the chemicals don’t stray from the wood.

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For this step, my best friends were painter’s tape and a putty knife. I tore the tape into small pieces and used the knife to carefully work it between the wood and cording without tearing it. It took about an hour to tape all four arms, but the time spent here means the fabric didn’t get destroyed by the next several steps.

You might remember Angela’s very similar post on refinishing chair arms. For her project she sanded the wood down and was able to use Danish oil to recolor the dark wood. In this case, there were a few different challenges. First of all, the fact that the wood here is surrounded entirely by fabric (and by this point tape) made strip-sanding a risky endeavor. One little rip in that masking tape and you’re sunk. The other difference was the color. Angela’s chair was dark, but the wood here was stained a warm amber color. This would require some stain trickery.

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Since aggressive sanding was out, I decided to use furniture refinisher to remove the finish. Usually this product is applied with steel wool to melt away varnish in a wet and wild process. To keep liquids under control, I just used paper towels soaked in refinisher to gently rub the wood bare. It takes a little longer, but the upside is there is no abrasion to the wood; it’s perfectly smooth when you’re done. I very carefully sanded the wood with a 320 grit sanding sponge, just to make sure any residue was gone. Sanding sponges are awesome for curved surfaces like these because they can conform to any shape.

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Now, to match that color. Color matching is never easy and without professional tools and equipment isn’t always even possible. But I would try my best. First I used Minwax traditional pecan stain. The result was an only slightly more orange version of the bare wood, but not nearly as brown as the other wood on the chair. Next I applied Minwax provincial stain. A little better, but this wood wasn’t very absorbent and therefore wiping stain just wasn’t yielding a deep enough color shift. Time for a heavier pigment. When I need to make big color changes, I often choose gel stain. My favorite brand is General Finishes. Their colonial maple was the closest match and after two wipe-on-wipe-off coats, I had a perfect color match. Three coats of General Finishes Arm-R-Seal satin wipe-on urethane and it was good as new.

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Sometimes it just takes a little trial and error. Never be afraid to stop and reassess a project if things aren’t looking right. Many people would have been satisfied by clear coating the wood or may have stopped after trying any old wiping stain, but the perfectionist in me is very glad I spent the extra time to find the right product and technique to make it match. And the best part is that next time I need to do this, I’ll be ready to roll.

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9 Comments

  1. Rena
    Posted August 15, 2014 at 12:37 am | Permalink

    Hello, Snag Team!

    I found your blog a couple of months ago, and I’ve enjoyed reading all of your archives. Your blog is my favourite source for great information about collecting vintage stuff. So packed with useful info!

    One aspect I’ve really found interesting is how you refinish wood using Watco Danish oil. I had always thought that old finishes had to be stripped completely before applying Watco, so I was keen to follow your lead here. With two walnut pieces, I washed the old lacquer finish with soapy water, rinsed carefully, and quickly dried the wood. Then, without sanding, I put the Watco on top of the old lacquer and wiped it off again about 20 minutes later. I then found that some oil seeped out over the next couple of days, so I kept wiping off the excess quite zealously. At this point, I love the depth of colour and good coverage of scratches.

    My questionz to you are these: How have you found Watco over an old finish to hold up over time? Do you find that the new finish ever rubs off or becomes dull?

    I am about to try to fix up my best find of the summer, which is a Lane Acclaim dresser (a real rarity in my small Canadian town.) I really want this to turn out, so I’d value any comments you can share.

    Thanks so much!

    • Austin
      Posted August 15, 2014 at 7:57 am | Permalink

      Hi, Rena!

      Thanks for being a fan of Snag! We always hope we’re putting valuable information out there and we’re glad to hear we’re helping out.

      Your question is a good one and it’s actually kind of perfect for this particular post, I’ll tell you why in a minute. To answer your first question about the durability of Danish oil or Rejuvenating oil over time, the answer is I haven’t tested it in the field. In theory it should hold up well, but oil finishes aren’t as durable as film forming finishes and it’s reasonable to assume that surfaces that get excessive wear may need a booster treatment in the future.

      But, that being said, Lane Acclaim is a horse of a different color. I’ve refinished numerous pieces and I can tell you that they take some specific care to look their best. Lane was great at making furniture that looks great, but they were not so hot, apparently, at developing a finish that’s durable. The tops of 9 out of 10 Acclaim pieces I find usually require stripping and refinishing. I don’t recommend Danish oil for Lane Acclaim.

      Why? Well, what makes Acclaim a little trickier than most pieces is what makes it great—those dovetails and contrasting trim. In the original factory finish a colored finish is applied over the two wood types causing them to even out in color. But whatever that white wood is—online many swear it’s oak, it is not—it simply doesn’t absorb stain or Danish oil. This means large scratches don’t touch up well. I also find the finish on Acclaim tends to “check” or form tiny cracks and it also often flakes off leaving bare spots of wood, usually in lines that follow the grain. Since the finish is colored and only sits on top of the wood, there’s a good chance Danish oil would soak through those cracks and cause a mottled appearance.

      So then, if not oil than what? It depends on the condition. If your piece only has minor scuffing, scratching and a little dulling here and there, I’d recommend a product called Howard’s Feed ‘n Wax. This blend of orange oil and carnauba wax helps make tired finishes look great, especially on the legs and sides. Wipe it on, let is sit for about 20-30 minutes and wipe off with a clean rag.

      If, however, you have worse damage, I’d recommend refinishing. By worse damage I mean large scratches, gouges, spots where the finish is worn off, water rings, cracked or flaking lacquer, etc. These probably won’t look better with a topical treatment. This is why your question is so perfect for this post—you can use the same process above for Acclaim. Here’s what I do in a little more detail:

      • First, chemically strip the surfaces to be refinished. Don’t overdo it, if you only have to refinish the top, only refinish the top.

      • Sand to 320 grit. Unless there is serious damage, I usually only power sand with 180 or 220 grit and then finish off with hand sanding at 320. Acclaim is veneer, so don’t get too aggressive with the sander.

      • Apply a stain. This is the important part. As I mentioned before, the white wood doesn’t accept color or stain very well. In the past I’ve used several “building” coats of regular old Minwax wood stain in colors like Golden Pecan, Provincial and Colonial maple (much like I mentioned in the post above) and achieved decent results. My recommendation, however, would be to use the General Finishes Gel Stain in Colonial Maple, the same that I used in this post. You may still consider using regular wood stain as a base, but the gel stain will give you the results you want faster with fewer coats. Spread it on and wipe it off—if you’re doing more than one surface, do them once surface at a time.

      • Clear coat. I prefer polyurethane. It’s easy to use and practically indestructible. I prefer the General Finishes Arm-R-Seal satin urethane that I used in this post. Be aware it dries a little more matte than the original finish. If that’s not to your liking you might consider buying gloss and satin and mixing them. It’s easy to use, just brush or wipe on thin coats and then lightly smooth them out and let dry. Usually three coats will serve you well. Minwax’s wipe-on poly is also a good product, though it might come out a touch shinier than the original.

      I really hope your project turns out well. If you want, feel free to email me with pictures of your Acclaim dresser—austin@snag-blog.com—and I can give you more specific advice.

      You’ve also inspired me to write posts on both refinishing Acclaim and deciding whether to rejuvenate or refinish furniture. Look for those in the future!

      • Rena
        Posted August 15, 2014 at 11:19 am | Permalink

        Hi, Austin!
        Wow, I’m beyond excited that you have taken the time to share such detailed feedback, and so quickly!

        I’m beyond grateful to hear about the special requirements of Lane Acclaim. The finish on the top of my dresser is very poor, having gone many rounds with nail polish remover over the decades. You’ve confirmed that that area will definitely need full stripping.

        The drawer fronts and sides of the dresser are actually in very good shape. I’d planned to use the Danish treatment on them, but knowing about your experience with Watco on Lane Acclaim, I’ll try Howard’s Feed’n’Wax. I’d never seen it here in Canada, but you’ve inspired me to check further. (For any other Canadians reading this, it’s available through the Home Hardware chain.)

        I hadn’t been able to find Arm-R-All either before, but good news for Canadians: Lee Valley carries it. Austin, could you please tell me how hard it is to apply this? I’ve truly botched applying urethane in my day, but I’ve finally figured out how to use Minwax Wipe-On Poly. Is Arm-R-All applied in the same way?

        Again, Austin, thank you so much for sharing all of this great advice. It was reading the Snag Blog that made me fall in love with Lane Acclaim. Otherwise, I probably wouldn’t have given the three scruffy-looking pieces another glance at my local Salvation Army store!

        Please keep up the fantastic work, Snag Team!

        • Austin
          Posted August 15, 2014 at 12:57 pm | Permalink

          Arm-R-Seal is a great product and works very much like Minwax’s wipe-on poly. I usually apply it with a woven nylon rag or applicator (actually I use stockinet sold for veterinary use that I bought from a surplus sale, but any smooth rag will do. I prefer synthetic). Wipe a moderate coat in the direction of the grain. Once you’ve finished an entire surface, “float” the applicator by gliding it across the wet finish but not really applying any pressure to smooth out any lap marks. Let it dry about 6 hours, sand (I prefer either a 320 grit sanding sponge or #0000 steel wool) and recoat. But if you’re familiar with Minwax’s product and are happy with your technique, then I’d probably just use what you have. I used to use that on all of my furniture before I discovered Arm-R-Seal. Good luck and feel free to send us before and after shots!

        • Angela
          Posted August 15, 2014 at 2:03 pm | Permalink

          Hi Rena,
          I feel like I should chime in with a tiny tip since I’ve botched several coats of poly in my day as well 🙂 For the Arm-R-Seal I use just what Austin recommended to me, and something that helped me quite a bit was to keep the rag folded flat, kind of like how you would fold up a piece of paper. I tried just grabbing a rag and putting it on like I would with a stain but that didn’t create a smooth surface.

  2. Rena
    Posted August 16, 2014 at 1:04 am | Permalink

    Hi again, Austin,

    I’ve rounded up all of the supplies you recommended, and I can hardly wait to get started. I’d be happy to send you before and after photos.

    One last question, if you don’t mind – do you know of a trick for removing Acclaim drawers? We can’t seem to figure out any way to unhitch them.

    I really do hope that you decide to write posts about redoing Lane Acclaim and also refinishing vs. rejuvenating furniture. My favourite Snag posts are when you guys talk about how to breathe life back into a great piece.

    • Austin
      Posted August 17, 2014 at 9:38 pm | Permalink

      You know, I’ve never actually had an Acclaim case piece, only tables, so I have no idea how to take the drawers out! My suggestion would be to look under the drawer and see what the drawer glide looks like. If the drawers run on ball bearing glides, there may be a little carrier that glides along the rail under the drawer that the drawer itself locks into. Broyhill Brasilia cabinets are made this way and the drawers are removed by pulling them all the way out and then tugging straight out with a little extra force. Good luck!

  3. Rena
    Posted August 25, 2014 at 5:29 pm | Permalink

    Hello, Snag Team!

    I just wanted to let you know that I followed all of your instructions, and I’m 100% delighted with my refinished Lane Acclaim dresser! Your advice was all exactly what I needed.

    I’ve refinished a dozen or so other pieces now, but this one ended up being one of the easiest projects. Other times, I’ve stripped every last bit of finish. But this time, I followed your lead and kept the stripping to a minimum. I only stripped the top and sides of the dresser, and lacquer thinner easily dissolved all of the finish.

    The General Finishes products were new to me, but what a pleasure they were to work with. The Colonial Maple gel stain was an excellent match for the finish on the drawer fronts and legs. It was easy to apply, and it nicely disguised the scrapes and gouges on the top of the dresser.

    I was a bit hesitant about using urethane as the clear coat because of earlier disappointing projects, but the Arm-r-all performed beautifully. I took Angela’s helpful advice about how to fold the cloth, and I followed Austin’s very clear instructions about how to apply the Arm-r-all. I really couldn’t be happier with the result – I love the rich lustre and high-end smooth finish. There is none of the plastickiness that I associate with urethane of cheaper brands.

    Emboldened, I used your rub-on/rub-off method to apply the Colonial Maple gel stain over light scrapes and scratches on the drawer fronts and wear on the carved handles. Those treated spots now fully blend in.

    So, Snag Team, I can’t thank you enough for all of your help. Your advice is right on the money, and the finished dresser looks gorgeous as a result. I’m going to email some before and after photos to Austin.

    Rena

    • Austin
      Posted September 1, 2014 at 11:35 am | Permalink

      Rena,

      We’re so happy your project turned out great! Technique and quality products make all the difference in refinishing and we’ve all had the same terrible experiences you’ve had with products in the past. We’re happy to hear that the latest and greatest things we’ve found have worked for you as well. Enjoy!

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